On June 28th, Emy Vithanage released a screenshot of an uninvited sex-chat initiated by Vangeesa Sumanasekara. This has led to yet another round of discussion about his long-discussed abusive behavior towards women, some condemning it and others somehow justifying it on various grounds. Since he is considered by some on the left to be a public intellectual, it is important that those of us in these spaces collectively condemn his allegedly repeated abusive behavior that continuously targets women who chat with him or engage with him in public or private spaces.
My personal condemnation of the alleged sexual harassment by him is unconditional and unequivocal; I also salute the women who have come forward to speak of their experiences and speak up against sexual harassment perpetrated by him, as the culture of impunity that exists in these alternative spaces itself can cause additional trauma to a survivor of sexual harassment.
The allegations against the accused come in the wake of a budding #MeToo movement in Sri Lanka, where in the past couple of weeks other women have come forward to speak of sexual harassment in institutional settings. Last week, senior journalists such as Lakshman Gunasekara and Dilrukshi Handunetti joined others to discuss the issue and suggest possible mechanisms that can redress the problem.
Unfortunately, such a response has been slow in coming from leftist public intellectuals, particularly those of us who move in the same circles, perhaps even attend panels or meetings with the accused person. I think a concentrated discussion on how such sexual harassment on the part of Sumanasekara or others in left political settings can or should be handled must be taken into discussion. It would also be important to protect the dignity of survivors and those who share their experiences. Fostering a culture of accountability is a crucial part of protecting survivors and moving forward. Since the personal is unequivocally political, I would like to call on a public debate on how sexual harassment affects left activism, delegitimizes any form of political action or discussion, and covers over a long tradition of sexual harassment and abuse of women in left spaces.
In the past, Vangeesa Sumanasekara’s alleged behavour has sparked controversy on Facebook, but little action beyond that has been taken. I think that Facebook is an excellent venue to start such a conversation, but sorely inadequate as a platform for action. Action against such behaviour requires constant and concentrated effort, commitment, education, legal action, and developing support networks. While several allegations against him have been raised in recent years, we cannot forget that sexual harassment, sexual abuse, rape, and other forms of sexual violence against women are not uncommon in political parties, groups, among public intellectuals, NGOs, etc., and that the problem is larger than this particular individual. There are several academics, left leaders, NGO bosses and active politicians on the left who can be named and shamed when it comes to sexual harassment. That is not to suggest that sexual harassment does not occur in non-left political spaces. It certainly does.
I do not, however, wish to over-generalize this problem which will distract us from the way, allegedly, Sumanasekara and others like him who enter the game quoting Marx or Gramsci, Laclau or Zizek, then use their cultural capital to abuse women. That is just unacceptable. Political action must also reach beyond hitting “post,” and dialogue should be sincere, capturing the complexity of the issue. Surely a victim of sexual harassment is a just as valid a point for discussion and debate as the elusive proletariat’s political valences if we are to have an honest debate on politics at all? Political action against sexual harassment begins with a sincere admission of the problem, recognition of the cultural and political institutions that sustain the problem, measured but sincere conversations between those with opposing viewpoints, and courage in the face of a powerful set of networks or public figures who may turn against those who criticize this culture of abuse. There is no “right time” to have this discussion. That time is and has always been now.